Joseph Smith is a fascinating character who played a key role in the 1800’s religious restoration movement and U.S. westward migration. The official LDS historical narrative understandably promotes a romanticized portrayal of the prophet, while the established chronology and emerging official documentation evidence a more complex man. Many members who seek a more comprehensive understanding of Joseph encounter a verifiable history which is difficult to reconcile with what they learned in Sunday School.
Historian Richard Van Wagoner, who is as well studied on Joseph Smith’s life as any, observed, “The historical record clearly demonstrates that on occasion Joseph used evasive, euphemistic, confusing, and self-contradictory language to conceal aspects of his inner self. …Ignoring the prophet’s duplicitous self will result in a failure to understand the man.” (Natural Born Seer, p. xiii)
Regardless of one’s opinion of the Joseph Smith’s character or prophetic status, to understand him, we must start at the beginning. His formative years and family dynamics provided the motivations which would consume him for the remainder of his relatively brief life.
EARLY SMITH FAMILY LIFE
Agriculture was the dominant means of survival in early 19th century America, before industrialization and urbanization slowly expanded the economy. Farming provided a difficult and often tenuous existence at best, as evidenced by the Smith family’s consistent poverty and relocation.
Joseph Smith Sr. tried his hand in various small business ventures, such as the speculative ginseng venture of 1803. The effort culminated in the total loss of the family’s savings, as his business partner who retained control of both product and proceeds absconded with the profits rather than pay Joseph Sr. his share.
Joseph Smith Sr. cited poverty when petitioning for a military exemption in October 1807. The family situation had not improved by 1814, when Joseph Sr. was again deemed too poor to incur the poll tax, denying him the vote. Even the climate conspired against the Smiths, as Mount Tambora delivered the largest eruption in recorded history in 1815. Global temperatures were sufficiently reduced the following year to ruin crops in one of the coldest summers on record. The Smiths abruptly relocated to Palmyra, New York as unpaid creditors seized the remainder of their funds.
The Smith family earned money selling cakes and beer from a handcart at regional fairs. Through a series of ill-conceived decisions, such as failing to pay the mortgage on their farm, despite generous term extensions, the Smith family again lost their land to unpaid creditors. Only the last minute mercy of a charitable friend enabled them to remain on the land as tenants.
The Palmyra area happened to be situated in the heart of what was known as the burned-over district, where extreme evangelical fervor was the rule rather than the exception. The Smiths were a deeply religious family and participated in various revivals of various denominations. Joseph Smith Jr. became a “very passable exhorter” at Methodist camp meetings and revivals. (History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps & Gorham’s Purchase, Turner, p. 214)
Joseph displayed an early affection for the supernatural, paired with a dislike for difficult farm life. His introduction and involvement in money digging is thoroughly examined in the Folk Magic / Treasure Digging section of this website. To briefly summarize, Joseph Jr. obtained his first of many seer stones as a teenager in 1819, then proceeded to use those rocks to seek buried treasure for hire. Soon thereafter, he would use his brown seer stone to dictate the entire Book of Mormon we know today, while often staring into his hat.
In 1823, Joseph began talking about an angel that would lead him to marvelous golden plates. “By 1825, young Joseph had a reputation in Manchester and Palmyra for his activities as a treasure seer, or someone who used a seer stone to locate gold or other valuable objects buried in the earth.” (Ensign, Plates of Gold, Steven E. Snow, LDS Church Historian, Sept. 2015)
Elaborating on his handling of Joseph Smith’s money digging enterprise, faithful LDS scholar Richard Bushman observed the following. “There has always been evidence of it [Joseph’s treasure digging activities] in hostile affidavits from the Smiths’ neighbors, evidence which Mormons dismissed as hopelessly biased. But when I got into the sources, I found evidence from friendly contemporaries as well, Martin Harris, Joseph Knight, Oliver Cowdery, and Lucy Mack Smith. All of these witnesses persuaded me treasure-seeking and vernacular magic were part of the Smith family tradition, and that the hostile witnesses, including the 1826 trial record, had to be taken seriously.” (Sunstone: Treasure-seeking Then and Now, vol. 2, no. 5, p. 5, 1987)
Looking ahead to 1826, we learn of Joseph’s arrest and conviction in “The Glass Looker“ trial relating to his ongoing money digging activities, which were deemed fraudulent. Though he had spoken of an angel guiding him to buried treasure a few years prior, this period seems to have solidified Joseph’s desire to find a new gig; treasure digging would no longer suffice.
Further evidence of Joseph’s distain for farming can be found in his interactions with Isaac Hale in the spring of 1828. Disenchanted with his son in law’s employ using a seer stone to unsuccessfully guide believing patrons to buried treasure, Isaac offered Joseph a plot of farmland on favorable credit terms. Isaac preferred that his daughter be supported by a husband with gainful employment. Even then, Joseph did not pursue farming and ultimately resorted to borrowing money to repay the debt.
In a move which confounds even his most ardent supporters, Joseph Smith received a revelation, via his seer stone, to sell the Book of Mormon copyright in Canada (for over $200,000 in current dollars). When the effort failed, Smith declared the revelation not of God. Smith did however promptly declare that God revealed the $1.75 sales price of the book, which was soon reduced to $1.25 to no effect. As is the case with many of Joseph’s actions, perhaps a simpler, less faith inspiring explanation exists for why he would relinquish control of his most important work.
By January 1830, we learn of Joseph’s formal sales contract with his closest associates. “I hereby agree that Martin Harris shall have an equal privilege with me and my friends of selling the Book of Mormon…”
Lucy Harris, a contemporary witness to Joseph’s actions, did not mince words when describing her husband’s involvement in the book selling enterprise. “Whether the Mormon religion be true or false, I leave the world to judge…His whole object was to make money by it. I will have one circumstance in proof of it. One day, while at Peter Harris’ house, I told him he had better leave the company of the Smiths, as their religion was false; to which he replied, if you would let me alone, I could make money by it.”
Ironically, two of Joseph’s first revelations, both delivered in July 1830, focus on the material support his new church would provide. D&C 24 chastises members to “support him under threat of God’s curse” in exchange for spiritual and temporal blessings, as labor not his calling. Immediately following, D&C 25 instructs Emma not to “fear for livelihood” as Joseph will support her “from the church.” The LDS Church later altered this revelation to read “in the church” to soften the original economic meaning.
Joseph’s mother described her son’s profound ability to entertain with fascinating stories during his teenage years. “During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travel, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.” (Biographical Sketches, Lucy Smith, p. 85)
The extended Smith family openly engaged in storytelling and the discussion of their dreams. Lucy Mack Smith confirms that the family discussed Joseph Sr.’s Tree of Life dream 19 years before the Book of Mormon was published. A number of other Smith family biographical facts were used by Joseph in the Book of Mormon. Remarkably, it is also Nephi’s father who experiences the same vision early in the Book of Mormon.
Joseph’s charisma and ability to expound upon elaborate impromptu imagery served him well throughout his life. “He interested and edified while at the same time he amused and entertained his audience; and none listened to him that were every weary with his discourse. I have known him to retain a congregation of willing and anxious listeners for many hours together, in the midst of cold or sunshine, rain or wind, while they were laughing at one moment and weeping the next. Even his most bitter enemies were generally overcome if he could once get at their ears.” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, p. 47)
How exciting it must have been for the early Mormons who associated directly with Joseph Smith. While most pioneer well diggers encountered only dirt and rocks, Joseph’s various excavations brought forth multiple powerful seer stones. While most humans see only darkness when burying their face deep into their top hat, Joseph saw light and astonishing Reformed Egyptian text. When presented with ordinary Egyptian funerary text, Joseph declares them to be the holy writings of the ancient prophet Abraham, written in his own hand. When raiding ancient Indian burial mounds during a failed march to reclaim contested property, Joseph invigorated his followers with the discovery of Zelph, a great white Lamanite leader. Even ordinary Missouri boulders became the very altar that father Adam built. Even when presented fake bell shaped (Kinderhook) plates, Joseph proclaims the ancient writings of Ham.
Regardless of whether or not an elaborately developed supporting manuscript existed, which would not have been of Joseph’s sole creation, ample evidence supports the reality that Joseph ultimately narrated the entire story. The original Book of Mormon edition contained hundreds of passages which demonstrate awkward 1800s grammar usage.
Do the verses read more like Joseph Smith telling a story, or the careful inscriptions of sophisticated Hebrew Indians?
- Alma 10:7-8 – “As I was a journeying to see a very near kindred…, as I was a going thither…”
- Mosiah 10:15 – “had arriven to the promised land”
- Mosiah 2:12 – “have not sought gold nor silver, nor no manner of riches of you”
- 1 Nephi 4:4 – “they was yet wroth”
- 3 Nephi 3:5 – “I have wrote this epistle”
- Alma 10:8 – “I was a going thither”
- Helaman 7:8 and 13:37 – “in them days”
- Ether 9:29 – “they done all these things”
It was this unmodified edition which prompted Mark Twain to declare Joseph’s work “chloroform in print.” Recognizing that such language conflicted with his assertion that each word carefully appeared through his peep stone, Joseph Smith corrected God’s text in the 1837 edition.
Following his initial failed attempt to produce the story by relying upon Martin Harris and his wife Emma as scribes, the LDS church instructs that the Book of Mormon miraculously emerged from start to finish in approximately 90 days. Members and investigators have long been instructed that the process relied upon a literal translation of golden plates.
Opinions on this critical question often hinge upon one’s belief or skepticism toward established history. If the Americas were not founded by Jewish sword wielding Indians shortly before Christ arrived; if no civilization ever recorded such a totally unique history on yet undiscovered gold plates, then perhaps a more likely explanation exists. Perhaps Lamanites are figments of young Joseph’s vivid imagination; could there be more to the story than many members have adequately considered?
Beginning with his childhood fascination with treasure digging lore and mention of a heavenly guardian offering gold plates in 1823, Joseph Smith had several years to develop the story. The pause after Martin Harris lost the first draft lasted almost a year. Upon restarting the effort, Joseph abandoned any pretense of using unseen Nephite interpreters and directly orated an elaborate story whose content bears striking resemblance to numerous contemporary works and ideologies of his day. There was no comparing one text with another, it was not a translation in any literal sense.
It is important to recognize that even the LDS church is subtly pivoting away from Joseph’s translation narrative, in favor of an inspired process which closely mirrors 1800s oral tradition. The LDS Church is finally attempting to reconcile the numerous contemporary witnesses who testified of Joseph verbally dictating the entire story.
Today, members are far more likely to hear leaders use words such as inspiration rather than translation. A prime example includes, Why Joseph Smith’s Dictation of the Book of Mormon is Simply Jaw Dropping, featured in the November 2018 issue of LDS Living. For many faithful members who have spent their lives defending Joseph’s translation of actual plates, this represents a significant turnabout.
One of the most commonly asserted claims in support of the Book of Mormon is that Joseph could not possibly have created it, regardless of the time allotted to prepare such homework. Countless LDS authorities have elaborated upon the literary complexity of the work; a view very few outside of Mormonism share.
The commonality of the themes exhibited throughout the book are chronicled in The Cultural Context Preceding the Book of Mormon section of this website. Many evangelical Great Awakening ministers were repeating the same Christian call to repentance. Joseph did not have to look far to find contemporary sources of inspiration which closely parallel the Book of Mormon thesis – that Native Americans were of Hebrew origin, and retained an evangelical concern for their salvation.
The objective here is not to conclusively prove how Joseph may have relied upon Spaulding’s lost manuscript, Ethan Smith’s thesis, the numerous works cited, or even the Spaulding-Rigdon theory. Other critics pursue the fascinating psychological aspects of Josephs character, often focusing on his frequently displayed megalomaniacal, narcissistic tendencies and the primal motivations of a boy raised in a nomadic, gypsy-like family.
Though entertaining to explore separately, the burden of reasonable proof falls not upon the skeptics, but upon those making grandiose claims. The bottom line is that Joseph’s narrative was not unique. Rather, it fed upon the demonstrably strong market for similar works of inspiring fiction.
Richard Bushman observed in Rough Stone Rolling that Joseph “had a green thumb for growing ideas from tiny seeds.” (p. 449) We invite the reader to more fully consider the Smith family dynamics, Joseph’s actions in context, as well as the cultural context which brought forth Mormonism.
Much has already been written about Mormonism’s founding prophet. Excellent resources include:
- Deseret Book provides an LDS approved biography of Joseph Smith via Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling.
- Fawn Brodie’s less apologetic portrait of Smith, No Man Knows My History, broke new ground in 1945. Though her work was immediately derided as anti-mormon lies, many of her assertions have now been validated in official LDS materials.
- Dan Vogel delivers a thorough examination of how Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon came to be in Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet.
- Michael Quinn provides the most comprehensive examination of the Smiths’ treasure digging heritage in Early Mormonism and the Magic World View.
- Dan Vogel delivers a thorough examination of how Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon came to be in Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet.